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What caused the 2000 Concorde crash?

Ten years later, the cause of Air France Flight 4590’s crash outside Paris is the subject of a trial starting today in France. All 100 passengers, nine crew, and four people on the ground died when the Concorde crashed on July 25, 2000.

By Correspondent / February 2, 2010

Air France Concorde Flight 4590 takes off from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, with fire trailing from its engine on the left wing in this July 25, 2000 file photo.

Toshihiko Sato/AP/File

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Flying from Paris to New York City in under four hours may sound futuristic. It’s actually history. The supersonic Concorde halved transatlantic flight time during its operations from 1969 until 2003, when the commercial jet was retired, in large part because of a crash in 2000 that killed 113.

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Ten years on, the cause of Air France Flight 4590’s crash outside of Paris is the subject of a trial starting today in France. All 100 passengers, nine crew, and four people on the ground died when the drop-nosed jet crashed into a hotel on July 25, 2000, shortly after taking off from Charles de Gaulle airport.

The passengers were traveling on a flight to New York's John F Kennedy Airport to board a cruise.

Lawyers for Concorde are expected to argue that one of the jet’s tires was punctured by a small piece of metal that fell minutes earlier from a Continental Airlines flight. This was also the conclusion of an investigative report by French authorities, issued Jan. 15, 2002, finding that debris struck the underside of a wing and ruptured a fuel tank.

Continental’s lawyers are expected to argue that the Concorde was on fire before striking the piece of metal. The company’s principal defense lawyer is Olivier Metzner, who is coming off a recent win representing former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin in his defense against charges of trying to smear President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In addition to Continental Airlines, two Continental employees and three Concorde employees are on trial for involuntary manslaughter.

David Learmount, an aviation expert for Flight International in London, says it is unlikely that Concorde's designers or Continental's engineers will be found criminally negligent.

"The strip of titanium allegedly dropped from a Continental DC-10 could be seen as a shoddy piece of workmanship, but the outcome – even if the court accepts the strip as being the proven cause of the tyreburst, which it may not – could not have been predicted," Mr. Learmount writes in an e-mail. "I'd put a few dollars on no-one being a criminal."

The Concorde lawsuit, Learmount says, seems more about creating an interesting case for lawyers to indulge on.

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